Communists in the South

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Mar 11 11:11:58 MST 2001

Mark Solomon, "The Cry Was Unity" (U. of Mississippi Press, 1998):


Out of the Party’s growing base in the black community came a local
leadership, new to communism but steeped in a rich social and cultural
consciousness. Robin D.C. Kelley, in his incomparable study of Alabama
Communists, points to the emergence of women who came to the Party through
neighborhood relief committees and battles for adequate assistance from the
city’s welfare board. Addie Adkins, Alice Mosley, and Cornelia Foreman all
were drawn to activism through struggles for sufficient relief. Helen Longs
joined the Party because of its opposition to the Red Cross’s draconian
relief programs, which subjected black workers to prisonlike works projects
for the lowest relief payments in the country. Estelle Milner, a young
Birmingham schoolteacher, organized sharecroppers in Tallapoosa County. A
small group of white working-class women led by Mary Leonard was drawn to
the local Unemployed Council and from there to confrontations with the city
welfare board — demanding food, clothing, decent medical care for
desperately poor whites, and respect for women by the authorities.

The cohesion and deep southern roots of Birmingham’s black working class
produced an exceptional group of leaders, many of whom went on to play
important roles in larger arenas. One of these was Al Murphy, born in 1908
in McRae, Georgia, into a family of poor sharecroppers. His was a religious
and race-conscious lineage: One grandfather had been a minister of the
African Methodist Episcopal Church and a presiding elder under Bishop Henry
McNeil Turner, a clarion voice of black emigration in the late nineteenth
century. As a marginally educated teenager, Murphy moved in with an aunt
and uncle in Tuscaloosa, where he dug ditches, picked cotton, and handled
corrosive chemicals in a pipe foundry. At the age of fifteen Murphy came to
Birmingham where he continued his low-paid, onerous labors. But Murphy also
enrolled in night school with a vague ambition to find a place in the
limited sphere of black politics. When the Depression hit, Murphy’s
education shifted from night school to the bread line. One morning in the
fall of 1930 he read a leaflet calling for an end to lynching, "full rights
for the Negro people;’ and opposition to "imperialist war." That leaflet
haunted him; he talked about it with Fred Williams, a friend who had
recently joined the Party. Williams brought Murphy to a meeting of the
Unemployed Council, and the young man joined Party almost immediately.

Murphy combined an introspective, analytical approach with a know
familiarity with the brutal essence of Jim Crow. Feelings seethed inside
him but he rarely, if ever, raised his voice in anger. A rather small man
with a body hardened by onerous labor, he found in Marxism an explanation
for the racism and exploitation that had shaped his young life. His low-key
persona served him well as an ironworker in the Stockham steel plant in
Birmingham where he sought to recruit black workers for the TUUL. Among his
recruits was Hosea Hudson.

Hudson was born in rural Georgia in 1898 into a sharecropper family. At
fifteen he took up sharecropping to help support his family after his
mother remarried and left their home. Hudson himself married in 1917 and
continued sharecropping until his crop was wiped out by the boll weevil in
1921. In 1923 he moved to Birmingham and found a job as an iron molder at
Stockham. Murphy, Hudson inherited a long memory, especially from his
grandmother of slavery and of Reconstruction’s promise and betrayal. Hudson
had grow up protecting his own humanity, refusing to bow before injustice;
dwelling in his consciousness was a sense of earthly liberation that was as
compelling the gospel singing that formed part of his religious life.

Hudson joined the Party on September 8, 1931. The date is enshrined in a
remarkable writing with a solemnity that one gives to a marriage date or
birth of a child. The oppressive working conditions and the low pay at
foundry were not the immediate inducements to sign up. He was angered the
Scottsboro case and the murderous assault on black sharecroppers at Camp
Hill. Both of those incidents symbolized in Hudson’s mind a cumulative
attack on all Negroes. His response was to "national" suffering and in that
sense his feelings typified what the Party meant by the "national
question." The Party became a substitute church, extending in Hudson’s mind
a system of values and a code of moral behavior: "We all thought, ‘well,
now, this is the real religion; ‘cause they said that Party members
shouldn’t mess around with another Party member’s wife or his daughter..,
and live a clean life, get Out and meet the public, people look upon you as
a leader."

Hudson joined the CP with eight other black workers, six from the Stockham
foundry. He was elected "unit organizer" of the Stockham group and in that
capacity met with other Birmingham unit leaders. He encountered a
seriousness and discipline among his black comrades that was transforming
for a man who claimed his interests had previously been mostly gospel music
and women. The unit organizers talked about new political developments,
immediate tasks, the Scottsboro campaign, cases of police brutality, ways
to activate all members, checking on fulfillment of assignments, and
"criticism and self-criticism." They tussled with the intricacies of
self-determination and were comforted that Communists were obliged to
support it "to the point of separation;’ but not necessarily to the act
itself. Those meetings were all black; the fashioning of agendas and tasks
was an exclusively black enterprise. This reflected in part the difficulty
of communication between white organizers from the North and the
overwhelmingly black membership of the Birmingham CP organization. The
first white comrade Hudson met was Harry Simms (Harry Hirsch), a
nineteen-year-old from Springfield, Massachusetts, who became a liaison
with the Share Croppers’ Union. He was killed in the Kentucky coal strike
of 1932.

In late January 1932 Hudson was fired by Stockham along with two fellow
workers. By that time Hudson was leading an underground fraction at the
plant that had grown to six units with six members each. The sacking of
Hudson and his comrades frightened other recruits, and attendance at unit
meetings dropped sharply. It was in the dead of winter, Stockham was laying
off many workers, and contact with the Party was broken: "We could not see
anybody to tell us what to do." On a frosty night, standing at a
footbridge, Hudson told his fired comrade John Beidel that he was thinking
about going to Atlanta to seek work. Beidel begged not to be left alone;
Hudson realized that he could not walk away from Birmingham, and he agreed
to help rebuild the Units. Within weeks another Party unit had been formed,
composed of both working and jobless women and men. The unit moved out to
the larger community, building a core of supporters, spreading news of
Scottsboro, distributing the Sunday Worker and the Southern Worker, often
surreptitiously dropping literature on porches in the dead of night,
putting leaflets and newspapers on church steps, and then following up with
conversations among those exposed to the literature — always making sure
that they were not talking to "police pimps.

In the spring of 1932 Harry Jackson brought a new district organizer to the
unit meeting. Nat Ross was a Jewish New Yorker and Columbia University
graduate who had briefly attended Harvard Law School before joining the
Party. A thoroughgoing Leninist, he insisted on stern discipline and tight
organization. Hudson’s unit had found a private home that became a
headquarter for its members, a place to "chure [chew] the rag; to discuss
issues, play checkers, and cultivate closeness and mutual support. After
Ross’s arrival, the Par took a major step: It organized an all-day
conference on a Sunday in April. Otto Hall came from Atlanta, and so did
Angelo Herndon, returning to Birmingham after leading a successful
demonstration of white and black unemployed to Atlanta’s City Hall.
Sharecroppers from Camp Hill and Reeltown came, making this the first
full-scale meeting between urban and rural radicals. A District 17 bureau
was established, composed of Hudson, Ross, Henry Mayfield from the coal
mines, Cornelia Foreman, Otto Hall, and a white farmer from Walker County.
Since biracial meetings in Birmingham were permitted between "the better
class of Negroes" and a few white ministers, bureau gatherings had to be
secret all-day affairs in the homes of sympathetic non-Party Negroes. Each
bureau member was responsible to bring one other to the meeting, whose
location was secret. Arrangements were generally made to meet a street
corner in early morning during police shift changes. If someone was more
than five minutes late, his contact was instructed not to wait; the tardy
member, said Hudson, had to "have a have a very good reasin for no shoring
[showing] up on time.., if they did not. . . we would all give him or her

By early 1932 the Birmingham Party had a coherent southern program: freedom
for the Scottsboro boys; interracial unions; the right of blacks to vote,
hold office, and serve on juries; the right of sharecroppers to sell their
own crops; public jobs at union wages; unemployment and social insurance;
direct cash relief; and full social and political equality. For Hudson and
his comrades such a program arose in large measure from their own
experiences. In answer to the relentless charge that the Party was using
blacks for its own (read "Soviet") ends, Hudson replied that the poor
blacks drawn to the Party "knowed that they didn’t have nothing but they
chains of slavery to lose." As Hudson saw it, the Party was a working-class
political organization, and blacks were members of the working class, an
inseparable part of a movement dedicated to breaking "they chains of
slavery." How then could a people be "used" by themselves? After all, their
identities had become embedded in the Party. The organization became
Hudson’s spiritual home, a repository of values and a source of education
both practical and theoretical. Don West, a Georgia minister, Party member,
and co-founder of the legendary Highlander Folk School, attended "Party
school" with Hudson in New York and helped him become literate. For all the
leading black Communists of Birmingham, a wider world opened. Mac Coad,
Archie Mosley, Comnelia Foreman, Henry Mayfield, and Al Murphy all traveled
to Moscow in the 1930s. Murphy was a delegate to the Seventh CI Congress in
1935; Coad fought for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.
But what they built in Alabama was their most significant legacy—
especially the Share Croppers’ Union.

Louis Proyect
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